Posts Tagged ‘Climate change’

Sizing up APCo’s plan, through customers’ eyes

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Customers of Appalachian Power Company gather in Roanoke to learn about the company's resource plan and the benefits of expanding clean energy's role going forward.

Customers of Appalachian Power Company gather in Roanoke to learn about the company’s resource plan and the benefits of expanding clean energy’s role going forward.

Dozens of energy customers gathered in Roanoke on Tuesday evening for one reason: the electricity system in this country is undergoing some exciting changes, yet utilities’ choices can still hold Virginia back from rapid progress toward a diverse energy mix.

Residents are showing they want to learn more and get involved in these critical decisions.

Utilities in Virginia must submit plans, called Integrated Resource Plans, discussing their intended approaches to meeting customer demand. State regulators require these plans at intervals, providing a window for customers to engage with their electricity provider. The State Corporation Commission is currently considering Appalachian Power Company’s latest plan, which is set to be heard in an official proceeding before a regulatory panel on Tuesday, Dec. 8.

This newest plan is notable in many ways. The company acknowledges that market changes have made renewable energy economically advantageous. Meanwhile, federal standards on carbon pollution are in a final form, another factor that can drive change. But here are a few points that illustrate how APCo’s plan stands to impede Virginia from harnessing its full renewable energy potential at the scale that would most benefit for customers and the economy.

The Effect of the Clean Power Plan

The CEO of APCo parent company American Electric Power, Nick Akins, recently stated that “The Clean Power Plan is no doubt a catalyst for the investments … to support not only the movement of the customers but also reducing the environmental footprint.”

Though rather non-specific, this comment is encouraging and reflects a recognition of the beneficial nature of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s actions.

The flexibility, even leniency, that characterizes the Clean Power Power offers protection against legal challenges but is also a potential shortcoming when it comes to achieving long-term pollution reductions while states go about complying with the standard. Sophisticated computer modeling can help utilities determine cost-effective ways of meeting targets. At this point, APCo has only modeled the consequences of a carbon tax. The review process for its current resource plan is an opportunity for regulators to ask the company to show different possible approaches for reducing carbon emissions enough to meet new standards. If they do, it could present ways to meet the standards that will economically benefit customers, like greater reliance on bill-shrinking energy efficiency programs to meet demand.

Capping the Amount of Solar APCo Develops

The headlines over the summer when APCo released its resource plan were striking: “Appalachian turns toward sun and wind for future energy.” It sounded like a major shift was taking place. And there was a perceptible change in tone in the plan itself: “In the recent past, development of [renewable] resources has been driven primarily as the result of renewable portfolio requirements. That is not universally true now as advancements in both solar [photovoltaic] and wind turbine manufacturing have reduced both installed and ongoing costs.”

But how big a shift is APCo really proposing, how fast would it happen? After several weeks of analysis, we can say this much: the shift could be bigger, but APCo is imposing some strict, arbitrary limits on the solar projects and energy efficiency programs it’s pursuing.

Coal is decreasing in APCo’s resource mix, as one plant goes out of service and other is converted to natural gas, which seems as though it would make room for increased use of a popular, proven technologies like solar. But APCo’s preferred plan includes 835 megawatts of new natural gas-fired power, which detracts from renewable energy investments. A new gas-fired power plant would lock us into decades of dependence on a fossil fuel with potentially more volatile price swings and an environmentally degrading life-cycle that includes fracking and transmission by pipeline.

Why does APCo propose to stop at 510 MW of solar between now and 2029, when the fuel source is free and the resource is cost-effective? It appears these limits are without reason or rhyme, so regulators will likely ask APCo to explain where its numbers come from and demonstrate why is preferred plan is the best deal for customers.

An Energy Efficiency Economy under APCo’s Plan?

Energy efficiency programs seek to capture energy that otherwise gets wasted, capitalizing on home auditing technology and expertise, modern appliance and HVAC design, and other strategies to make sure customers enjoy the same amount of comfort and convenience while using less energy. Utilities including Duke Energy and Georgia Power are reducing demand through from efficiency programs, in the neighborhood of 1 percent energy saved every year,, avoiding the need for some costlier new peak or baseline generation additions — like natural gas fired plants. The question is: does APCo approach energy efficiency in a way that values these benefits as lasting and quantifiable?

APCo’s plan only expects a 1 percent improvement in energy efficiency over the next 15 years. As with the company’s solar modeling, it’s our sense that APCo is artificially limiting efficiency as a resource in its plans. The company also cites customer “acceptance and saturation” as a factor that stands to determine program cost and potentially the total impact on energy use. We know from listening to customers that people are eager to better control their energy use, and efficiency programs are a popular, basic service. When several new programs become available Jan. 1, 2016, we look forward to seeing them promoted and Appalachian Voices will do its part to get the word out about how residents can shrink their bills.

APCo does provide much-needed weatherization programs for its low-income customers that are managed by providers in the service area, which can provide work in good, often career-length jobs. But program offerings that are not income-qualified remain limited, and in order to reach Virginia’s voluntary goal of 10 percent energy efficiency by 2020, a non-binding target endorsed by General Assembly and Governor McAuliffe, APCo must design and get approval for much more robust programs.

Meanwhile, more and more APCo customers are opting to go solar each year, investing in their energy future and using less energy from the grid. Yet, that trend is also not encouraged in APCo’s plan — rather, the company tacitly subscribes to the existing system of fees, system size limitations, permit waiting periods, and other restrictions.

Plans Are Not “Set in Stone” — Stay Committed to Change

Clean energy investments proposed in APCo’s plan such as solar farms and wind installations aren’t exactly set in stone; they are contingent on approval by the State Corporation Commission, which may depend on whether current federal tax incentives are extended, reduced, or allowed to expire. According to APCo’s plan,decisions about whether or not to proceed will be made later, based on whether there are “suitable opportunities.”

It is critical that APCo customers remain engaged to support energy freedom and diversifying Virginia’s energy mix with renewables during the review of APCo’s energy plan and beyond. So take a moment to send a comment now.

Want to help spread the word? How about taking a picture of yourself holding a handwritten message or captioned with text about APCo’s plan? Try something like:

  • APCo: Don’t CAP Solar in your plan — Re-evaluate clean energy
  • Stop whittling our energy freedom away — Let people go solar
  • ​I urge APCo to expand efficiency programs for affordable bills

Tag us on social media or email your photo to, and thanks for supporting clean energy!

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I heard it through the pipeline

Friday, November 6th, 2015 - posted by brian
Among opponents of the pipelines, the McAuliffe administration’s actions are only deepening skepticism of the governor and his relationship with the projects' primary backers. Photo by Will Solis,

Among opponents of the pipelines, the McAuliffe administration’s actions are only deepening skepticism of the governor and his relationship with the projects’ primary backers. Photo by Will Solis,

From Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s perspective, it’s probably best to just keep a lid on what state officials say publicly about the controversial natural gas pipelines proposed to cut through the state.

Based on reports this week, that’s exactly what he wants to do.

According to the Roanoke Times, a new policy compelling officials to brief McAuliffe’s office before commenting on the pipelines resulted from a meeting in Richmond that included representatives from 13 state agencies involved in overseeing permitting and construction.

“There’s no effort to muzzle anyone,” assured Brian Coy, a spokesperson for McAuliffe.

McAuliffe backs both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline and spoke strongly in favor of each months before either had been officially filed with federal regulators.

READ MORE: Pipe Dreams: The push to expand natural gas infrastructure

I get it. Having more than a dozen agencies handling projects as contentious, and politically precarious, as the pipelines would be difficult enough. Knowing that the press and the public are prodding officials at those agencies for information only complicates things further for the administration.

But that doesn’t make suppressing speech any less problematic. And regardless of how representatives from Richmond describe the tactic, that’s what it is. Rather than speak out of turn or hold their breath while waiting for the official OK, we can assume agency officials will just speak less often and be more guarded when they do.

“This is a gag order, pure and simple,” said Ernie Reed of Friends of Nelson County, in a press release yesterday.

Among opponents of the pipelines, the administration’s actions have only deepened skepticism of McAuliffe and his relationship with Dominion, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s primary backer.

“There’s only two possible reasons the Governor would want state agencies to ‘coordinate’ their comments — one is to control those comments and the other is to vent them through his contacts with Dominion,” said Friends of Nelson President Joanna Salidis.

Friends of Nelson and many other groups across Virginia have been dismayed at McAuliffe’s repeated emphasis on the pipelines’ potential benefits, especially when paired with his apparent ignorance of the threats they pose to landowners, natural resources and the climate.

TAKE ACTION: Urge Complete Environmental Review of Pipeline Proposals

Last week, Friends of Nelson invited the governor to visit Nelson County to speak to residents about his support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and, presumably, to hear their concerns. As of today, McAuliffe has not responded to that invitation.

The Roanoke Times reminded readers of how McAuliffe campaigned on a platform of government transparency. Friends of Nelson added that the governor promised to prioritize clean energy. His abiding support of what’s good for the pipelines is putting both of those positions at risk.

In another half-hearted attempt to defend the decision, McAuliffe spokesperson Brian Coy told the Roanoke Times, “Things work better when the left hand is aware of what the right hand is doing, preferably before it winds up in the paper.”

I’m glad that wound up in the paper.

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30 Groups Demand Single FERC Study of Fracked-Gas Pipelines

Monday, October 26th, 2015 - posted by cat

Joe Lovett, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, 304-645-9006,
Joanna Salidis, Friends of Nelson, 434-242-5859,
Tammy Belinsky, Preserve Craig, 540-874-5798,
Kirk Bowers, Sierra Club, 434-296 8673,
Hannah Wiegard, Appalachian Voices, 434-293-6373,
Monique Sullivan, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, 202-440-4318,

Thirty organizations in Virginia and West Virginia, including Appalachian Voices, have joined forces to call on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to conduct a combined, comprehensive review of all four of the major natural gas pipeline projects currently proposed for the Blue Ridge and Central Appalachian region. Many of the groups are based in counties where the Atlantic Coast Pipeline or Mountain Valley Pipeline would cut through family farms and national forest land, traverse steep slopes and dozens of streams.

In a letter sent to FERC today, the groups said the agency must do a single review, called a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, in order to evaluate the true need for each of the pipelines in relation to the others, as well as to assess the direct, indirect and cumulative environmental and social impacts of all the pipelines. Legal experts say that, under the National Environmental Policy Act, FERC is required to do a single, comprehensive review of all related projects in a single geographic region.

Joining landowner and environmental advocates in a tele-press conference this morning were Virginia state Sen. John Edwards and Del. Joseph Yost, whose districts include sections of the proposed route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Both have stated to FERC their opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Senator John Edwards (D), 21st District: “The many environmental impacts to this region include: in the event of an earthquake (which is likely due to a fault line in Giles), a 42 inch high pressure natural gas pipeline would likely rupture, causing a large explosion and extensive damage. There is also risk to numerous pure aquifers, and the mountainous terrain and limestone topography make building such a pipeline unsuitable. There are also many threatened and endangered species and other environmental and safety issues that need extensive and careful study.“

Delegate Joseph Yost (R), 12th District (in his letter to FERC): “Balancing the need for energy infrastructure while also respecting an individual’s property rights and safeguarding our natural resources for future enjoyment is no easy task. However, I again would like to state my opposition to the proposed MVP project. It is my hope you will examine this project closely over the coming months taking these and many other considerations under advisement and determine the same.”

On Friday, Appalachian Voices and 15 other groups filed a formal protest of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in which they said Dominion Transmission, Inc., and Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC, had presented flawed and exaggerated information about the need for the pipeline, while ignoring the impacts to the environment, landowners, communities and the general public. The groups contend that FERC must evaluate the economic and environmental benefits of cleaner sources of energy that development of the pipeline would displace.

Also on Friday, Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC filed its permit application with FERC to build a massive natural gas pipeline spanning 301 miles from the fracking fields of West Virginia, over the mountains and into Virginia. It follows on the heels of the application filed in September for the 564-mile, $5.1 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would also carry fracked natural gas from West Virginia through Virginia into North Carolina.

Both projects have sparked intense opposition among local, state and regional organizations representing tens of thousands of people, including landowners whose property or communities would be affected, forest and wildlife conservationists, land preservationists, outdoor recreationists, climate activists and others. Preserve Craig sent a brief to FERC requesting a meeting to discuss the benefits of regional review of the Marcellus Shale natural gas pipelines.

New England is facing a similar situation of fielding proposals for multiple natural gas pipelines. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey recently asked FERC to conduct a combined review of those projects “to avoid piecemeal review, utilize a common analysis of regional gas demand, and compare each project’s impacts and benefits.”

Joanna Salidis, President of Friends of Nelson: “The least we, as unwilling citizens of a directly impacted community, deserve is the assurance that the federal regulatory process responsible for approving and siting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is fair, thorough and accurate. We believe FERC’s current plan to review the ACP in isolation from the three other high-pressure, large-diameter pipelines proposed for our region is negligent in light of the ACP’s threats to our property rights, economy, health and safety.”

Joe Lovett, Appalachian Mountain Advocates: “FERC may not allow Dominion to build the ACP until it understands whether the pipeline is necessary. The FERC certificate may not be issued until FERC carefully analyzes whether there is sufficient capacity in existing infrastructure to transport the gas to market. Dominion has not come close to showing FERC that there is such need.”


Understanding the Stream Protection Rule

Friday, October 23rd, 2015 - posted by Erin

SPR Meme 1

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued a long-awaited draft Stream Protection Rule. While it’s far from perfect, the proposed rule is a long-overdue update to protections for both surface and groundwater from mountaintop removal coal mining. It also provides much-needed clarification regarding a host of other issues, including reclamation standards and bonding requirements.

Not surprisingly, the industry is fighting the Stream Protection Rule tooth and nail. Instead of focusing on the substance of the rule though, opponents’ rely on tired “war on coal” talking points. The industry also argues these regulations are unnecessary and will undermine an otherwise viable industry — even though several large coal companies have declared bankruptcy. Let’s examine those claims.

First, this new rule was developed to update the rule currently in use — the 1983 Stream Buffer Zone rule — based on new science and realities on the ground. The past 32 years have provided ample time for additional research to prove what many Central Appalachian residents already know: that burying streams with mining waste permanently damages waterways and that mountaintop removal is linked to a host of other environmental and health problems. The Stream Protection Rule aims to address a number of current problems.

The Stream Protection Rule aims to improve methods for monitoring for and preventing damage to surface and groundwater. It’s important to note that the rule still allows for mining activities, including waste disposal, in streams. The new rule is actually weaker than the 1983 rule in this regard. The ‘83 rule prohibited mining disturbances within 100 feet of streams and prohibited damage to streams by mountaintop removal mining. In practice, however, states routinely grant variances to the ‘83 Stream Buffer Zone rule, allowing valley fill construction and other mining impacts to streams on a regular basis. This is often done by allowing companies to remediate other areas of streams that have already been degraded as a substitution for the stream miles they will bury or otherwise damage.

While it does not include a stream buffer zone requirement, the Stream Protection Rule does provide a number of added benefits for aquatic resources. New requirements include enhanced baseline monitoring data for both surface and groundwater. The availability of such data will make it easier to identify damage caused by mining. Under existing regulations, coal companies too often escape liability for damage to waterways because there is no baseline data to prove pollutants were not present before mining began. The draft rule also includes a definition of “material damage to the hydrologic balance”, which was never previously defined. Clarifying language like this is an important part of making sure that rules are enforceable on the ground.

An important question to ask is whether this type of regulation is necessary. In this case, the additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed. Research over the past decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. A recent study examined coal companies’ success in restoring or recreating streams as a form of “trade” for other streams damaged or buried during mining. The study found that 97 percent of these projects failed optimal habitat scores for aquatic life. This is strong indication that rebuilding a stream’s form will not necessarily restore its function. Additionally, the study found that a majority of these restoration projects were completed in perennial streams, while mining damage was mostly occurring in intermittent and ephemeral streams. This is important because intermittent and ephemeral streams often provide unique habitat and food resources critical to the survival of many species.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

The science clearly indicates the need for more protection of streams and other environmental resources, but would the cost of these protections be justifiable? Do the benefits to streams — and people, and tourism, and recreation, and … — outweigh the impact that the rule may have on the industry? The industry would like you to believe that this new rule will be so costly that it will create an unwarranted burden on an otherwise beneficial Central Appalachian industry. The OSMRE attempted to answer this debate through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which includes cost-benefit analyses. In most scenarios, the OSMRE expects minimal job loss due to the new rule, in part due to jobs created through the need to comply with the rule.

What the EIS doesn’t adequately do is take into consideration the larger context of surface mining in Appalachia and the impacts it has on local communities. First, the coal industry already has a net negative impact on the economies of the states where it occurs. Several different studies in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky indicate this. In 2006, the coal industry cost the state of Kentucky $115 million. In 2009, the coal industry was estimated to cost the state of West Virginia $97.5 million and the state of Virginia $21.9 million.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

The EIS also does not consider surface mining’s global impact. The burning of coal in power plants releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Surface mining in Central Appalachia also exacerbates climate change through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, forests in the region will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by the year 2035. This is due both to deforestation during the mining process and grassland reclamation. The Stream Protection Rule improves reclamation requirements so that more mined lands are returned to native forests, instead of the now-prevalent grasslands.

Lastly, the EIS does not consider the negative health outcomes associated with mountaintop removal. The prevalence of health problems the region is well documented. Most recently, a study showed that dust from surface mines can promote the growth of lung tumors. The negative impacts to the health of communities near mines alone should be enough to justify an end to mountaintop removal.

It is true that the coal industry in Central Appalachia is facing a particularly difficult time. Unlike previous boom and bust cycles, this downturn looks to be permanent. This is exactly why additional safeguards are necessary to protect public water. Companies desperate to turn a profit in a more competitive energy market may be more inclined to bend rules or ignore regulations all together. This time marks a critical and exciting opportunity to address economic diversification throughout the region. Protecting the communities and the natural assets of the region will be integral to a successful transition.

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Charlottesville Joins National Day of Climate Action

Monday, October 19th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Concerned citizens and clean energy advocates gather on the downtown mall in Charlottesville for a National Day of Climate Action.

Concerned citizens and clean energy advocates gather on the downtown mall in Charlottesville for a National Day of Climate Action.

In probably the largest and most diverse environmental justice rally our community has ever seen, more than 150 residents of Central Virginia gathered in downtown Charlottesville last Wednesday with a clear, two-point message to our leaders: Stop the gas pipelines and address the climate crisis.

The event was part of a National Day of Action that included more than 200 demonstrations across the country, with citizens calling on leaders at all levels to take meaningful steps now to curb America’s carbon footprint and bring more clean energy online. The day of action was planned as part of the build-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December in Paris where world leaders will make critical decisions that will impact generations to come.

Across the country, some of the largest actions were in places not generally known for big climate actions: Pittsburgh, Orlando, Phoenix and St Louis. In Virginia, folks rallied at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and in Leesburg and Roanoke.

Opening the Charlottesville event was Susan Elliott, the city’s Climate Protection Program Coordinator. “Here in Charlottesville, over 25 organizations have already enthusiastically stepped up to support Energize!Charlottesville, our local campaign to save energy and win the $5 million Georgetown University Energy Prize. Residents are interested in what they can do to save energy at home and how to make clean energy choices. That’s one way we can take action together to benefit our community and do what’s right for the climate.”

Adrian Jones, a resident of Union Hill, Va., where a huge natural gas compressor station would be located along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, speaks to the crowd about his opposition to the project.

Adrian Jones, a resident of Union Hill, Va., where a huge natural gas compressor station would be located along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, speaks to the crowd about his opposition to the project.

Wednesday’s rally was attended by a diverse crowd of business professionals, students, climate justice activists, concerned energy consumers, and others. A large contingent of people against the proposed massive natural gas pipelines in the region also attended, voicing concerns for both local ecological impacts as well as the climate impacts of the projects.

For a spirited demonstration reflecting Wahoo pride, participants held orange People’s Climate Movement banners and wore blue to show opposition to gas pipelines. The rally was organized by Appalachian Voices, University of Virginia Climate Action Society, the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club, 350 Central Virginia, and Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and garnered significant media coverage on TV, radio, and print.

Dahvi Wilson of Apex Clean Energy, a renewable energy company based in Charlottesville, summed up a business perspective: “Those of us who are watching closely can already see a tectonic shift beginning. The writing is on the wall. Corporations are seeking to source more of the power they need from renewable generation facilities. The U.S. is recognizing our role in creating this problem, and we are embracing our responsibility to help solve it.”

In brief remarks to the crowd, Del. David Toscano described the political lay of the land in Virginia’s General Assembly: “Some of my colleagues are voting and talking as if they don’t believe in science. … Well, let me tell you, we have the people on our side, the times are changing and we’re going to get more renewable energy in this country and in Virginia.”

Earlier this month, Governor Terry McAuliffe emphasized in a newspaper commentary that the effects of climate change are happening now, here in the commonwealth, and stressed the broad benefits of building a clean energy economy.

Planning for more national climate actions for the weekend of November 28 is now taking shape to keep the drumbeat of citizen involvement building and the grassroots momentum growing in every corner of the country.

In Central Virginia, we can take this opportunity to realize that as we vigilantly fight the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the other natural gas pipelines proposed in the region, we do so alongside other communities across the country and around the world working to prevent fossil fuel extraction, transmission and combustion in their communities. We resist them as communities have resisted new coal mining operations and coal-fired power plants, both because the direct environmental harms are too serious and because we know it is essential to transition to large-scale clean energy to combat the climate crisis.

We carry that spirit forward.

>> Learn more about our work on climate change
>> Learn more about our work on fracking and pipelines

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Drivers of Pollution

Friday, October 16th, 2015 - posted by molly

By W. Spencer King

Nearly ninety percent of Americans drive to work everyday, the commute bookending the workday with traffic, red lights and monotony.

Greenhouse gases contribute to climate change and smog, which are detrimental to both the environment and human health. These gases come from many sources including industry and electricity generation, but nearly every commuter is involved with one of the largest factors of greenhouse gas emissions: gasoline-powered vehicles.

Among the greenhouse gases from the transportation sector, carbon dioxide traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and is a centerpoint in the discussion about global warming. Methane affects the upper atmosphere by degrading the ozone layer, and nitrous oxide also poses a significant threat to ozone layer depletion. Fluorinated gases have a large global warming potential; they leak from refrigerants used in vehicle air-conditioning units and can stay in the atmosphere for decades.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge. Graphics by Maggie Sherwood

Appalachian Farmers to Benefit from Remote-Sensing Data

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015 - posted by interns

An expanded partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NASA could benefit farmers looking to reduce the effects of climate change on crop yields.

The agreement, announced this summer, promises expanded efforts to gather soil moisture data using satellite remote-sensing. This data could be compiled into maps that would improve farmers’ ability to forecast weather and water availability, as well as provide an early-warning system against drought.

Though higher elevation regions such as central Appalachia are not expected to warm as quickly as lowland areas, according to the USDA, extreme weather fluctuations may produce more frequent droughts and flooding. Federal researchers also say irrigation demands on freshwater resources could create water conflicts in a region where annual precipitation ranges from 30-85 inches.
— Chris Robey

Reaching for Virginia’s clean power potential

Thursday, October 8th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Virginia has an tremendous opportunity to meet its Clean Power Plan goals by expanding clean energy. But it is critical for Virginians to engage as the state develops its compliance plan.

Virginia has a tremendous opportunity to meet its Clean Power Plan goals by expanding clean energy. But it is critical for Virginians to engage as the state develops its compliance plan.

In a commentary in Capitol Connections magazine out this week, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia characterizes the job of meeting new climate change pollution reduction goals this way: “In 1962, President Kennedy challenged our nation to go the moon by 1969. If America can get to the moon in 7 years, emitting one-third less air pollution in 15 years is surely within our grasp.”

A major goal of Appalachian Voices’ and our partners’ in recent years has been to set Virginia on the track toward a safe, reliable and affordable energy future, which has meant working hard to shake our state out of the status quo. Virginia has never had a binding state renewable energy standard, and advocates have long stressed the need for both utility-owned and non-utility projects to harness clean power on a large scale.

So where does the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan put Virginia? The rule represents the first requirement for fighting climate change by cutting pollution from power plants. If we use it well, the Clean Power Plan can incentivize energy efficiency programs and drive growth in solar — two ways to ensure a more secure grid and shrink bills for electric customers. But there are possible pitfalls too.

One way in which a national plan aiming for a 32 percent reduction of carbon pollution from power plants helps Virginia is by the signal it sends. It’s a further indication as to the direction the market is going. There’s a wrinkle, however, that has some renewable energy advocates worried, and it’s very relevant in Virginia: the role of new natural gas-fired power plants.

One reason for concern about possible increased gas use in Virginia is that our state’s emissions target is fairly easy to achieve. Though one wouldn’t know it from the histrionics of some politicians who oppose the standards. In a troubling development that threatens to derail Virginia’s compliance process, some state legislators are using dire-sounding warnings about electricity reliability and costs — the same red herring arguments that surfaced last year — to attempt to take away the McAuliffe administration’s authority to implement a state plan. Some insist on General Assembly approval of Virginia’s implementation plan.

The adverse effects if Virginia dramatically increases its use of natural gas are clear: higher demand for a fuel with a lifecycle that’s harmful to communities and dangerous to the environment, from the risks to water from fracking, to the impacts of dirty pipelines, to the methane released during production and transportation. More investments in a fossil fuel source are also bound to diminish the incentive for utilities to incorporate renewable energy projects into their plans. Think of how much solar power Virginia could build for the same price as 8,000 megawatts worth of new natural gas plants.

When it comes to the cost of electricity, a report by Public Citizen shows that the Clean Power Plan can cut Virginians’ electricity bills by between 7.7 and 8.4 percent by 2030, and that greater reductions are possible when well-designed energy efficiency programs are launched — programs that will also boost the economy by creating outsource-proof jobs.

Unfortunately, these affordability conclusions are in spite of and not because of Virginia’s enactment of a so-called “rate freeze” law, which is apparent in two major ways: the “freeze” goes into effect now and expires in 2020, and it turns out that the law creates a rate floor rather than a rate ceiling by blocking increases to base rates but not increases to cover infrastructure costs (which are the exact kind of costs that would ostensibly result from the need to comply with a pollution rule.)

That action is an example of why it will be so critical for Virginians to engage during this upcoming 2016 legislative session. We can press our elected officials to take steps that advance a vision of safe, affordable and reliable energy if we all take the time to participate.

Stay connected and watch for updates as we support the McAuliffe administration’s role in setting Virginia’s compliance plan, and if you have not yet provided a comment to officials about our state’s approach to the Clean Power Plan, do so here or via by the Oct. 13 deadline.

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Action on climate heating up

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015 - posted by tom

Each month, Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons reflects on issues of importance to our supporters and to the region.


When future historians write the book about climate change, they will surely note August 3, 2015, as the beginning of a new chapter. President Obama’s announcement that day of first-ever regulations to limit carbon pollution from power plants in America — which has one of the largest carbon footprints in the world — marks an unprecedented milestone.

Yet, as important as it is, it’s anything but certain how the story unfolds from here.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency developed the Clean Power Plan over many years and with millions of public comments. The rule sets a national target of reducing carbon pollution from power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030. Though a relatively modest goal, it sends a strong message to other nations that the United States is acting on climate.

In the rule, the EPA gives states tremendous latitude in how they meet their individual emissions targets, and that’s where the rub is. Our concern is that many states will favor more natural gas — which burns cleaner than coal but has serious climate impacts from extraction and transportation — over energy efficiency and renewable sources like solar and wind.

By investing in efficiency and renewables, southeastern states can leverage the Clean Power Plan to create tens of thousands of jobs, help families save money on their monthly electricity bills, and ensure healthier air and water for us and for future generations. These benefits are especially important for low-income communities and coal-impacted areas of Appalachia, which continues to suffer the dire health and economic consequences of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Shortly after the president’s speech, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe expressed support for the Clean Power Plan, noting the importance of reducing carbon emissions and “creating the next generation of clean energy jobs.” We appreciate the governor’s recognition of America’s changing energy landscape and we’re fully engaged with our partner groups in working with his administration to comply with the new rule to benefit all Virginians.

In North Carolina, however, Governor Pat McCrory took the opposite tack. Despite the fact that North Carolina is currently in an excellent position to easily meet the EPA’s proposed goal for the state, the governor not only helped the state government pass a law blocking implementation of the rule, he vowed to take legal action against the EPA. Appalachian Voices is committed to continue pushing the Tar Heel state in the right direction, and stands willing to work with its leaders to realize clean energy solutions.

We celebrate this new chapter and embrace the work ahead to keep the momentum on our side.

For Appalachia,

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U.S. coal giant Alpha Natural Resources files for bankruptcy

Friday, August 7th, 2015 - posted by jamie
Alpha Natural Resources Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, West Virginia - Photo by Ami Vitale

Alpha Natural Resources’ Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, W.Va. Photo by Ami Vitale,

Alpha Natural Resources, one of the largest coal mining companies in the United States and a big player in the Appalachian coal market, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday of this week, coincidentally on the day President Obama announced his administration’s final Clean Power Plan.

In the announcement, Alpha blamed “an unprecedented period of distress with increased competition from natural gas, an oversupply in the global coal market, historically low prices due to weaker international and domestic economies, and increasing government regulation that has pushed electric utilities to transition away from coal-fired power plants.”

According to the release, the company does not anticipate closing the business down, but will “seek the necessary immediate relief from the Bankruptcy Court that will allow normal business operations to continue uninterrupted while in Chapter 11, with coal being mined, customer commitments honored, and wages and benefits for Alpha’s affiliated employees paid.”

A Bloomberg Business article notes that Alpha, which employs nearly 8,000 workers at more than 50 underground and surface mines and more than 20 coal preparation facilities in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, has accumulated $3.3 billion in debt over the past several years.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Alpha has assets of $10.1 billion, liabilities of $7.1 billion, and is “seeking up to $692 million in bankruptcy financing from senior lenders and secured bondholders to fund its operations.”

United Mine Workers of America responded to the news:

“Today’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Alpha Natural Resources appears to follow the same script as others we’ve seen this year: pay off the big banks and other Wall Street investors at the expense of workers, retirees and their communities … Alpha needs to understand that while we are willing to discuss ways forward that will be of mutual benefit for the company and for our members, we are also prepared to do whatever we need to do to maintain decent jobs with the pension and health care benefits our retirees were promised and have earned.”

Alpha launched a new website to detail the Chapter 11 process, including contact information and FAQs for employees, customers, retirees and other stakeholders.

Is there an echo in here?

The move brings to mind the financial roller coaster of Patriot Coal, the West Virginia-based company that emerged from its first bankruptcy in 2012 only to file again a scant 3 years later in May of this year. Patriot’s initial 2012 “restructuring” plan was extremely controversial as it involved slashing the healthcare benefits of 1,800 union miners and retirees. Patriot initially won court approval for the cut, but, after significant public scrutiny and outrage, settled with the United Mine Workers of America in 2013 for $400 million to cover the benefits.

And now history seems to be repeating itself. According to an AP story that is quoted on Coal Tattoo (yet mysteriously disappeared from national news outlets, including the Washington Post), just a few weeks ago Patriot asked a judge’s permission to “reject the company’s collective bargaining agreement with union miners and change retirees’ health care benefits …” The United Mine Workers of America filed an objection to the proposed plan, which includes $6.4 million in bonuses paid to management employees.

Just this week, the beleaguered company announced the layoff of 1,081 coal miners, most in West Virginia’s Kanawha County.

Patriot Coal is also the first coal company in Appalachia to announce it would phase out the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.

“Big Coal’s war on itself”

When examining the financial tribulations of big coal mining companies, industry officials are quick to point the finger at what they have dubbed the “war on coal,” claiming that environmental regulations are the primary culprits causing their fiscal misfortunes. But according to a recent article co-authored by independent financial analyst Andrew Stevenson and NRDC’s Dave Hawkins, coal mining’s economic downturn has more to do with bad investment decisions than anything else.

“The biggest cause of Big Coal’s loss of value is that Big 3 management bet big on a global coal boom and lost big when it went bust,” Stevenson and Hawkins write. Their article goes on to detail the five specific reasons Alpha and other coal companies are on the brink of bankruptcy.

“In sum, bad bets at the top of the market, weak met coal prices, cheap natural gas, and lower power demand due to energy efficiency reduced cumulative forecasted coal revenues for the Big 3 by approximately $21 billion over the past four years. This is a big hit for companies as highly leveraged as Alpha Natural, Arch Coal, and Peabody Energy and the reason why these companies are struggling to stay afloat today.”

As industry officials and coal-friendly politicians — including an outspoken Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who notedly said, “I am not going to sit by while the White House takes aim at the lifeblood of our state’s economy” — themselves take aim at the Clean Power Plan, they have yet to acknowledge the most important question on the table: what will happen to residents in Appalachia’s coal country who, because of company bankruptcies, layoffs, revocation of pensions and lack of other job opportunities, remain among the poorest in the nation?

So far, the only offer of assistance to these folks has come from President Obama himself, in the form of the POWER+ Plan to revitalize the region.

“They’ll claim [the Clean Power Plan] is a “war on coal,” to scare up votes — even as they ignore my plan to actually invest in revitalizing coal country, and supporting health care and retirement for coal miners and their families, and retraining those workers for better-paying jobs and healthier jobs,” Obama said on Monday, taking aim at McConnell and his other critics. Communities across America have been losing coal jobs for decades. I want to work with Congress to help them, not to use them as a political football.